In Magic in the Moonlight, Colin Firth plays an egocentric magician named Stanley who is asked to visit a young mystic to debunk the illusion that she really is a mystic. Her name is Sophie (Emma Stone), and everyone is very taken with her, even Stanley’s illusionist friend Howard, who sent for him after he claims to have not been able to spot Sophie’s tricks.
Stanley is a very proud man, and he has no time for the people who fall for Sophie’s illusions, even though those are the same people who sit in his audience every time he performs. He doesn’t believe in God, and he only believes in science. Sophie believes there’s more to the world, and she enjoys helping people communicate with their deceased love ones. She argues that her work, even if it were false, gives people hope and helps them through life.
So the movie is about two opposing viewpoints, and which one better helps people deal with life’s hardships. As Stanley gets to know Sophie, he begins to believe her magic is real. Sophie, meanwhile, begins to develop romantic feelings for Stanley.
Stanley ultimately tells the world that Sophie is the real deal, but he never seems to believe it. His transition from skeptic to believer is surprisingly swift, and it’s aided by their intimacy. Still, everything Stanley does is choreographed, like his act, so he still seems skeptical.
After his aunt is involved in a near-fatal car crash, Stanley finds himself praying to God only to suddenly pull back, revolted by his sudden faith. Stanley does a complete 180 and either suddenly realizes Sophie is a fraud, or he’s so angry that he decides to reveal her trickery, turning up his suspicion from a slow simmer to a boil.
Using a trick we briefly saw in an earlier performance, Stanley appears to leave a room, allowing Howard and Sophie to talk, revealing that it’s all fake and Howard was helping her deceive Stanley. Stanley then turns around in a swivel chair and confidently tells them he now knows everything. Suddenly he’s the same egocentric man as before, happy to have his entire worldview reinforced.
Some other stuff happens, and then Stanley accepts that he has fallen in love with Sophie, and despite a couple hollow obstacles (such as her engagement to another man that we never really believe will work), they get together.
This movie sets up a dynamic of logical vs. illogical. Stanley believes in logic and science because he uses it every day to deceive people. He knows all the tricks, and he fools his audience, so he’s always on the lookout for how he might be fooled. Because of this he has his guard up all the time. When he hears about Sophie he goes into the encounter with a closed-off mind, sure that she’s making this all up. The only credibility her “magic” has is that Stanley’s trusted friend Howard vouches for her, saying she’s the real deal.
But Stanley’s worldview begins to slowly dissolve as he seems to buy into Sophie’s act. Not only does she have the power to break down his walls and change his perception of the world, but because of that it allows them to grow closer, as if Stanley is brought back to life by realizing there are parts of the world on which he’s turned his back.
But his ego wins out, and he’s right again, seeing that Howard and Sophie tricked him. There is power in being right, but it’s also a hindrance to his character’s growth. His ultimate decision is to allow that there is some magic in the world, whatever that may be. The movie implies that such “magic” includes love, and how it often feels so illogical.
Sophie and Stanley are presented as clear opposites. She seems to believe in an unseen world, but since we learn she’s a fake, we also learn that they’re really not that different. They’re both magicians who are constantly fooling people. The only difference is that he looks down on his audience while she thinks she’s helping hers. Yet Sophie appears to believe in her own tricks, and that seems odd. I don’t know if it’s naivete or what, but the story just pushes her in the complete opposite direction of Stanley so there’s a more dynamic conflict going on. It’s a better story if they believe different things.
One of the most powerful and also commonly used techniques in movies is the shot/reverse-shot set up. Think of any conversation between two characters: the camera shows one person in one shot and the other person in the second shot. These can be framed so that each character is alone in their shot or it can be such that both are visible in each shot, with the person facing away from the camera in the foreground, the camera over their shoulder.
In Magic in the Moonlight, there is a lot of information to be gleamed from these shots. For example, when Howard tells Stanley about Sophie the mystic. We know eventually that Howard is fooling Stanley, and in this conversation Stanley mentions how gullible people are, willing to believe anything. In Howard’s shot there is a woman sitting seductively in the background, and though it’s never commented on, she feels like a temptress, just like Howard is tempting or luring Stanley into this story.
The woman toys with her cain the way Howard toys with his cigarette. And Howard talks to Stanley like he’s trying to sleep with him, only in this case sex is really getting Stanley to disprove a mystic. Stanley loves to disprove magic whereas most people want to make magic.
Howard just plays into Stanley’s ego. He tells Stanley about this wealthy family that has taken in Sophie and pays her for her visions. Stanley goes off on a brief rant saying thinks like “let me guess…” and implying the family is being fooled. All Howard has to do is say things like “yes” and “you’re right.” He even tells Stanley that he’s the best at disproving false magic. All he has to do is stroke Stanley’s ego like the woman in the background telling the man, “you’re so strong, so handsome,” and he eats it all up.
The shot/reverse-shot set up also clues us into the relationship between Stanley and Sophie as it develops. At first they are framed alone in their own shots, distant from each other. This is because, understandably, there is a lot of distance between them since Stanley brings his own baggage into the encounter. He doesn’t want to believe so he doesn’t, but that same belief also pushes him away from Sophie (and a lot of people in his life).
As they get closer, they begin to be framed in the same shot and filmed over each person’s shoulder, physically bringing them closer together. Yet even as they begin to bond, they’re still coming different worlds. In a scene in which the two of them have lunch in Provence (the first time they appear to be amicable), their attire becomes much more apparent and telling.
Sophie’s light clothing blends in with the light pastels of the background while Stanley’s charcoal suit stands in stark contrast with the pastels behind him. Where Sophie blends in, Stanley sticks out like a sore thumb. In addition to that, the space behind Sophie is occupied by people eating lunch and being social. The space behind Stanley is empty, emphasizing the island on which he’s sequestered himself.
…and here’s Stanley…
I liked the say Sophie blended into her environments, because all she does is reflect back to people what they want to see and feel. Really she just shows them themselves, like they are looking into a mirror. It’s why her almost-fiancee is in love with her even though he hardly knows her.
In another important scene, the one in which Stanley confronts Howard and Sophie for lying to him, the distance comes back. Where once they were together, almost as one, now they are back to their boxing ring corner.
Stanley is framed by a dark background, so he blends into the environment, but in Sophie’s shot everything is light. The conversation is no longer about them as people but about what they believe in and represent.
Here is Stanley trying to rain on Sophie’s parade…
…and here is Sophie having her parade rained on.
It’s almost as if they’re not even in the same room.
Stanley comes from a position of power, he is seated while she stands. In this scene he is right, and that power runs through his veins. It’s what empowered him when the movie started, and it’s what empowers him now. This scene is like how people fight, this vs. that, leaving no room for compromise, it’s a battle and you expect one worldview to win out, like you’ll convince the other person but often times you don’t, you only tear each other apart and get nowhere or just get tired.
So after their fight, Stanley feels worse, realizing that even though everything seemed to reinforce his values, he feels like he’s missing something, something that he only just discovered but has just as quickly lost.
So he tells Sophie he loves her and after some slight hesitation, she happily shows up at his doorstep to marry him. In the end, Stanley allowed room for some magic, even if he’s still ever the pragmatist.
*Note – the movie seems to construct a dichotomy in which Stanley has two options: reject Sophie’s mysticism and reject her as a love interest or accept the possibility that Sophie’s mysticism is for real and accept her as a love interest. But I think that by accepting her love, that doesn’t necessarily mean he accepts the “magic.” I’m having my own vision right now, and it’s one of them bickering with each other, never completely accepting what the other represents, but that might be a little too pessimistic.